Chris Murray and Amy Newman square off in <i>The Playboy of the Western World</i>.
Image: Owen Carey
Chris Murray and Amy Newman square off in The Playboy of the Western World, egged on by a cast of excellent actors.
Despite being regarded as one of the greatest plays of the past century, J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World is rarely staged these days due to its large cast, which makes Portland audiences all the more lucky that it happens to be one of Artists Rep’s artistic director Damaso Rodriguez’s favorite scripts, for this production is a true theatrical treat.

Sharp-tongued Pegeen Flaherty (Amy Newman) might not have been raised in a barn, but she was raised in a bar that’s not far from it. In her small Irish town, her living room doubles as the village pub, drunken men and gossiping women coming and going without a knock. And it’s into this hubbub that a ragged, mysterious young man stumbles with a town-rattling secret he’s eager to tell: he’s on the run after murdering his dad.

Instead of turning him in, the village people exalt him as the 1907-equivalent of a reality TV star; the men toast his heroic savagery and the women, Pegeen included, savagely fight to bed him.

Of course, it all comes crashing down when his father shows up sporting a bloody bandage, and a symbolic act of freedom becomes a very real deed of violence.

Although Pegeen’s fictional town is placed only loosely on the west coast of the Emerald Isle, Synge’s Playboy put Irish theater firmly on the map, and it’s easy to see why with its densely poetic and witty dialogue and ambiguous exploration of human darkness—it is at turns both a satire to make Synge’s countryman Oscar Wilde proud and a tragedy in its depiction of social immobility. Of course, the riots it incited with its 1907 Dublin debut amidst early nationalists affronted by its morally bumbling villagers no doubt served as great publicity. (Read more about Playboy's historic place in Irish theater in our preview of Portland theater’s Irish Spring.)

The Playboy of the Western World
Artists Repertory Theatre
Thru June 22

Rodriguez uses every inch of Jack O’Brien’s beautiful expressionist set to make a dance from all the characters’ comings and goings (as well as making brilliant use the pub’s windows to both comic and tragic effect). The play’s climax in particular, with all 11 actors in an outrageous act of literal tug-of-war, is a feast for the eyes and the belly.

And that cast of 11 Portland power players is exceptional. Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, and Jeb Berrier bumble hilariously as a trio of drunken old codgers, counterbalanced by the comic adolescent glee of Rebecca Ridenour, Lissie Huff, and Brenan Dwyer as three village girls. Jill Van Velzer prowls the pub as a ginger cougar, clashing regularly with Amy Newman as the spitfire Pegeen. Isaac Lamb makes you yearn to smack his character, the goody two-shoes naïf of a man promised to wed Pegeen, only to be rewarded when Chris Murray’s increasingly virulent turn as the patricidal Christy does, in his quest for Pegeen’s hand.

My only complaint on opening night was that the accents run so thick that the dialogue is difficult to understand at times, meaning I occasionally found myself left out of the laughter, although the direction and acting are so clear that there’s little risk of losing the story.

The play ends on a complex note that might not be as provocative today as it was in 1907, but it is still deliciously thought-provoking, feeling remarkably modern in its commentary on celebrity and the desire to overthrow society’s strictures. “Wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by,” Christy remarks in between visits from doting villagers. You would be foolish not to see this show before it, too, goes by.

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